The upcoming season always looks wonderful at this time of year, holding the promise of brilliant new plays, fabulous musicals and great actors -- the known and the unknown. There is certainly plenty of variety ahead: plays political and mysterious, zany and classic, bouncing off the news and distant from it, extravaganzas and one-person evenings. That is, of course, if everything happens as planned, which in the theater is always, enticingly problematic.

Splashy musicals start and end the season, with "Shogun, the Musical" now playing in the Kennedy Center Opera House and "Les Miserables" at the National Theatre, and the long-awaited touring version of "The Phantom of the Opera," metamorphosing in the Opera House at the end of May. In between, "Grand Hotel" will open its doors in December, and Sarah Brightman, the once but not future Mrs. Andrew Lloyd Webber, will be featured in a concert version of his works, called, unsurprisingly, "The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber in Concert." What would a theater season be without a few ALWs?

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company will essay its first musical with "The Rocky Horror Show," which ran forever in London before moving on to motion picture immortality. If you don't know what it's about, there's no point in telling you now.

Arena Stage is celebrating its 40th birthday, and a major bash is planned for October, with First Lady Barbara Bush signed on as honorary patron (yes, but can she sing?) and such alumni as James Earl Jones, Jane Alexander and Robert Prosky joining an all-star committee roster. Those who cannot fork over major bucks to attend the gala can go to a free open house on Oct. 28, complete with backstage tours, entertainment and the ever-popular refreshments.

For this anniversary season, which will also see the departure of Producing Director Zelda Fichandler, the theater's guiding force for most of its life, the motto seems to be nuptial: something old, something new, something borrowed, and quite a bit blue. Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," which inaugurated the present building in 1960, will open the season in a few weeks, this time with a multi-racial cast directed by Artistic Associate Tazewell Thompson.

Arena also will revive "Our Town," with Prosky returning to play his old part, the Stage Manager. The theater's other classics are "Pygmalion," "She Stoops to Conquer" and "The Seagull," the only Chekhov play Arena has not yet explored. Fichandler will direct this last production of the season, which also is her last production before she becomes the artistic director of the Acting Company and continues her teaching role at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York City.

Two plays this year deal in different ways with the Holocaust: "Born Guilty," a workshop production at Arena, and "The Puppetmaster of Lodz," a main-stage production at the Studio Theatre. "Born Guilty" is based on an Austrian journalist's interviews with children of Nazis; "Puppetmaster" is about a man who escaped from a concentration camp and takes place in Berlin five years after World War II has ended. Directed by Studio founder Joy Zinoman, it will star Philip Goodwin and run in repertory with "In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe," which means "forever" in legalese. The play deals with "artistic censorship, prejudice and the crassness and gullibility of American culture."

Other political plays, to categorize them crassly and gullibly, include another workshop at Arena, "Before It Hits Home," about a black family in which one member has AIDS, and Woolly Mammoth's "An Evening in Our Century," which takes place in a secret military office in South Africa. "Rebel Armies Deep Into Chad," opening at the Round House later this month, is about a novice foreign correspondent in Africa who must confront the unpleasant results of his reporting.

Three real-life figures will be portrayed onstage this year, the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and writers Isak Dinesen and Truman Capote. Len Cariou plays Douglas at Ford's Theatre in "Mountain," a biographical work interspersed with the liberal judge's own words. Ford's new artistic director, Michael Gennaro, has been in town long enough to know to schedule this play's opening for the first Monday in October, the traditional opening of the Supreme Court. (Do they have cast parties too?)

In Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, Julie Harris will portray Dinesen in "Lucifer's Child," fashioned from the writer's works and letters and set in her later years, after the syphilis that eventually killed her had started to invade her body. This will not be the glamorous baroness of "Out of Africa." The play's author, who was commissioned by Harris to produce the script, is Bill Luce, who wrote "The Belle of Amherst," with which she had such a success. Actor Robert Morse brings his acclaimed production of "Tru" to the Morris Mechanic in Baltimore in early October.

Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Heidi Chronicles" will play at the Eisenhower, opening in late March, and her play "Isn't It Romantic," which had a run at the Kreeger Theater a few years ago, will be produced by the Washington Jewish Theater in October.

Two local lawyer-playwrights will be getting major productions as well. Ken Ludwig, whose "Sullivan and Gilbert" played at the Eisenhower a few years ago, will see his Broadway hit "Lend Me a Tenor" tour through the Kennedy Center. Gary Bohlke's "Doublecross" will be produced by Roger Stevens at the National, opening soon after "Les Miz" closes in mid-October. Bohlke, for whom this is a first big-time production, describes his play as a thriller, "a whydunit rather than a whodunit," set in a town very much like Middleburg. The town, however, is called Monroeville, which is so named after Truman Capote's birthplace. That is not a clue.

Stacy Keach is opening the Folger Theatre's season in "Richard III," the misshapen king. Keach, who has been a great deal more in his career than "Mike Hammer," has played a physically repulsive villain at least once before: in a college production of "The Changeling." Avery Brooks follows Keach with "Othello," with Iago and Emilia also being played by black actors. The director is Harold Scott, who did the much praised production of "A Raisin in the Sun" at the Kennedy Center. Philip Bosco will come in to play "King Lear" in the spring, and in between the Folger will have a 17th-century Spanish work, "Fuente Ovejuna."

The Christmas season will bring not one but two productions of "A Christmas Carol," the familiar one at Ford's and a one-day-only version at the new George Mason Center for Performing Arts. "Amahl and the Night Visitors" and his mother will be revived at the Kennedy Center for the season too. For its holiday offering, the Studio is bringing in performance artist Paul Zaloom and a show he calls "The House of Horrors."

After Christmas, Neil Simon's new play, "Lost in Yonkers," will open a pre-Broadway run at the National. The hot rumor is that the three main roles will be played by Irene Worth, Maureen Stapleton and Mercedes Ruehl.

Let us not forget some of the works that promise to be truly off the wall. There's "A Tale of Two Cities," at the Studio, not based on the Dickens book but the version originally produced by the Ridiculous Theatre Company, in which a drag queen comes home to find a baby on his doorstep and keeps the child quiet by telling him the story. Folger stalwart Floyd King has taken on this one-man tour de force.

And Woolly Mammoth, of course, has come up with a few plays that one suspects are not adequately described by the synopses in the theater's handouts. "Mud People" is about a woman and her 12-year-old daughter who encounter a kind of angel. And the season finishes with two plays in repertory: "Fat Men in Skirts" and "David's Redhaired Death," both of them candidates for my favorite play titles of the year. "Fat Men" is about a mother and son marooned on a desert island and "David" concerns two redheads who become friends. Or something.